“It’s not easy to speak the truth sometimes. Especially when that truth is hard to hear,” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said this week, calling for mask wearing to slow the spread of COVID-19. She was calling for Americans to come together to take care of each other. Today, the last day of the Global 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Violence Campaign, I ask my community to come together for Indian women in the US who have been subjected to violence. Even if our truth is hard to hear.
Every time Kamala speaks, I feel a spine-tingling sense of pride that a half-Black, half-Indian American woman could rise above a system that feels like it’s designed to lock out women, and attain such incredible heights. I wonder how Indian Uncles and Aunties are reacting to the truth of Kamala. Are they proudly claiming her as one of our own? Or are they uncomfortable with her power, her tremendous accomplishments, her refusal to allow men to condescend to her, her blackness?
This Indian ambivalence about the status of women is a dilemma that has plagued my whole life. How can so many Hindu American men worship goddesses and go home to perpetrate violence against their wives? How can an Indian American woman excel academically and professionally, but also domestically and as a mother? Why do many Indian men face only half these expectations?
Indian American women and girls experience sexism – curfews, dress codes, mobility restrictions, wage discrimination, sexual harassment, and the measure of our self worth by our ability to marry and reproduce. As “Sacrificial Sitas,” many of us accept an unfair, unequal division of unpaid labor in our homes. But most worrisome of all, we are subjected to significantly higher rates of intimate partner violence than most other ethnicities. The statistics are grim:
- 38% of South Asian American women reported experiencing physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse in the past year. (2)
- 66% of South Asian American survivors of intimate partner violence reacted to abuse by trying to be “unnoticeable” to their husbands. (3)
- 47% of South Asian Americans reported being exposed to domestic violence as a child. (4)
- Indian women born in the U.S. or who immigrated to the U.S. pre-adolescence were more likely to experience physical violence, sexual assault, and stalking— compared to those who immigrated post-adolescence. (5)
Intimate partner violence is a societal scourge and a grievous human rights violation. It can lead to homicide, suicide, disability, HIV, miscarriage, stillbirth, PTSD, substance abuse, school drop out, loss of employment, and so many more negative impacts on women, children, society, and economies.
COVID has made violence against women and girls exponentially worse. Lockdowns and social distancing measures are keeping women at home with abusers, and keeping girls out of school. Family and community support structures are breaking down, and access to police, healthcare, child protection, and emergency shelter has been disrupted. Families are experiencing a loss of employment and income, food insecurity and illness, leading to increased conflict in the home and a dramatic increase in calls to domestic violence hotlines and support services.
Indian men on temporary H1-B work visas to the United States are growing increasingly anxious about their ability to remain employed here, and to fulfill traditional, rigid gender norms that measure their masculinity by their ability to provide as breadwinners. Their wives, often on H4 visas, have even more precarious circumstances. Without an independent income, an H-4 spouse often can’t afford to file for divorce, obtain custody of children, or leave an abusive relationship.
Even though violence against women and girls in the Indian American community is pervasive, it is not inevitable. There are steps we can take now to help prevent violence, and care for survivors:
- If you are experiencing violence, reach out to a local South Asian domestic violence organization in your area.
- Volunteer for, and donate to these organizations.
- See something, say something. If you witness violence against women or sexism, speak up, ensure the safety of the victim, and respect her dignity and wishes.
- Challenge sexism in your home. Make sure your sons and daughters have the same rules, rights, responsibilities and opportunities.
- Advocate for the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, originally introduced and passed by Biden and blocked recently by Republicans, by writing to your representatives. VAWA has specific protections for Indian American survivors, such as asylum status, permanent residency and a path to citizenship.
Joya Banerjee is a Lead Advisor on Gender-Based Violence at the international humanitarian organization, CARE, based in Washington, DC. She received her BA cum laude from Barnard College of Columbia University and her Master of Science in Global Health and Population from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is also a volunteer at the South-Asian women’s domestic violence organization, SaheliBoston, and a certified yoga instructor.
Note: Joya’s views are her own and do not represent those of CARE.